Friday, December 16, 2016

Useful Sites for Details of Setting

In an interview P.D. James once described consulting an accomplished climber on the details of scaling a particular cliff. She took careful notes, wrote up her description of the ascent, and showed it to her friend. He read it through carefully, nodding at each line, and then laughed out loud at the end. When she asked him what was so funny, he replied, “You’ve gotten all the details of the climb right but you let him make the climb in an hour or so. It’s an eight-hour climb!” Details matter.

Whenever I begin a new story I establish in my own mind, and often in my ongoing notes, the time of year, general weather considerations, and any other details I’m going to rely on to tell the story. This can be more complicated, or less so, depending on where the story is set.

When I’m writing about India, for example, I don’t worry about the length of day because my setting, in Kerala, is so close to the equator that the weather is hot or hotter, the sunrise and sunset are consistent throughout the year. Further, each one happens quickly. South India doesn’t have lingering, color exhilarating changes at twilight. South India does have, however, deciduous trees, and I have to make sure I refer to them dropping their leaves, for instance, at the appropriate time. For the most recent Anita Ray mystery, When Krishna Calls, all the trees mentioned are in full leaf if not in bloom.

When I’m writing about New England and other parts of the world, I like to have a reference for the relevant time changes. Several websites allow me to track sunrises, etc., for any part of the year. I use one that allows me to printout a calendar for a particular month that includes daily timings, such as sunrise, solar noon, moonrise, and length of day. I can choose to include other information if I want.

I also like to use a real sequence of days, in order to get the weather right but also to avoid using the same kind of weather day in and day out, unless it bears on the story. There are lots of weather sites that allow a user to type in a zip code to get the weather for that location over a period of days or longer.

In Come About for Murder and other Mellingham mysteries, the setting is sometimes established by noting what is in bloom. I want to avoid using the same plants again and again, so for this problem I consult one of the many online calendars for planting. I prefer the site for the National Gardening Association, which offers several useful pages of information.

Details matter in a mystery, and getting the setting right is just as important as getting right the effects of a particular poison or details of the uniform of a serviceman or woman.

For the Anita Ray mysteries and Mellingham mysteries, go here.


  1. Hi Susan,

    I agree completely--details do matter--whether writing mystery, romance, literary, etc. I think it's one of the strong points of your writing. For instance, when you write about India I feel as if I'm there. Appeals to the senses are so important in creating setting and atmosphere. Many small, exact details make a book or story come alive for readers.

    1. I enjoy stories that are well grounded, and try to do the same in mine. Thanks for commenting, Jacquie.

  2. Thanks for listing these sites you use. I'm sure they'll be helpful to others in adding details.

    1. I hope they're useful. Thanks for stopping by.